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Stephanos Stephanides – Selections from the Divan

Translator’s Introduction

Why did I decide to translate Niki Marangou? When I ask myself this question, I remember Walter Benjamin’s affirmation in his celebrated essay “The Task of the Translator” (which served originally as a preface to his own translation of Baudlaire), that translation catches fore on the life of the original. Perhaps this is not unlike the transmission of messages with fires that Niki evokes in the “Road to Damascus”. I caught fire with the rite of writing in each poem I read, and I desired to join the process of ritual invocation by transferring the ritual into another language.

The memory of ritual under the surface of daily life is splendidly evoked in the “Letter to Dionysis” (the first of Niki’s poems I was compelled to translate), and we also feel the movement of spirits in the necropolis under modern Nicosia apartment buildings in “As you return by Boat from Egypt”. A ritual poetics marks the process of her writing, which explores the link between the healing of ritual cleansing and the catharsis of art. Places are marked by graffiti on walls, epigrams on ancient ruins, fragmented mosaics, faded icons, snippets of utterances, which are recovered to open up spaces as if ritually through the metaphoricity of the writing. By metaphoricity I do not simply mean metaphor in the classical sense of one thing standing for another, rather I refer to the idea of transportation implied in the Greek word metaphora, which is also related to translation, signifying movement across.

Ships are significant images in Niki’s poetry as they are signs of this movement between places and spaces, from this shore to the one beyond, the movement back and forth across the boundaries in the multiple layers of our lives and cultures. As we move through the sensuous and sensual images evoked the cross-cultural experience of the east Mediterranean world and sometimes beyond into Iran and India, we also sense the spectral voices and gestures of the souls and spirits that occupy these spaces. The desire for or expectation of dream and vision is in the sign of writing and this marks the dislocation of desire in her poetic imagery. The rite of writing is evidenced in the “Request for a Dream”, where a dream is sought by writing on a parchment, and in the inscriptions at Epidavros paying homage to Asclepius for directing their healing in a dream. Ships mark the textual tropes that situate the obsessions of writing in chiasmus and displacement: in the blue boats the poet saw scratched on church walls in “Jerusalem” and in the ships painted on city walls in “For the sake of Those”.

Writing like translation is a continuous movement towards its own complementation, a desire for the renewal of life after displacement and fragmentation. In Niki’s poems, the desire to be moved across is linked to the desire to break the continuum of the wall. In the poem “I Have Never Been Inside a Ship”, the trauma of displacement and the desire to be translated or transported are related. The is echoed in Hecuba’s words in the The Trojan Women, which serve as an epigram for the poem: “I have never been inside a ship. My knowledge of them is from painting and stories \” In “For The Sake of Those” the poet suggests that she is translating ships to writing as her writing comes after the displacement of the journey after:

now at the conclusion of journeys
to towns whose walls
have paintings of ships
Ravenna, Bucharest, Constantinople,
Odessa, Smyrne, Pergamum, Alexandria,
the sea rusts the iron
and peels the paint

time to collect yourself at home
to be worthy to write
for those who do not know letters

If ships translated into writing signify the opening of space, in the “Last Limassolian” the tension of the cultural location underlies the discursive ambivalence of this shipping town “which no longer travels/ does not idle does not play/filled the off-shores, brokers, Mercedes”. Quick money has brought an experience of cultural loss and stagnation, which is further accentuated by the loss of the Other or the absence of the Turks “who reared him”, so that the Limassol mechanic feels “enclaved and missing in his own town” Heterogeneous histories split the present and mark the ambivalent space within the subject. The longing for complementation is in the “sea of Limassol behind” the poem’s final image.

If Niki’s poems are rutual processes, they also enact allegorical processes of loss and retrieval. Although the retrieval is always already incomplete, we may find joy in the fleeting movement toward the possibility of renewal, rather than nostalgia at the loss and ruin of the past. The is exquisitely illustrated by “Roses”, the first poem in this selection.

Stephanos Stephanides

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